Sunday, October 22th 2006

ABUSIVE LANDLORDS, be warned: The Movement for Justice in El Barrio, a community organization that for two years has battled for immigrant rights in East Harlem, will not tolerate any more mistreatment of tenants.

"We will not allow that any landlord treat immigrant tenants with anything less than dignity and respect," said Juan Haro, the movement's leader.

Actually, the tenants' group is celebrating what it considers a very important victory over Steve Kessner, one of El Barrio's most powerful building owners. Three months ago, The Village Voice named Kessner one of New York's 10 worst landlords.

At the time, Kessner, who owns 48 buildings in East Harlem, told the Voice that the Movement for Justice in El Barrio had become his "only headache," but that he would not sell his buildings.

"No one is forcing me out of the neighborhood I helped build," he told the Village Voice.
Now, three months later, Kessner has changed his mind. He has announced that his buildings are up for sale, with a price tag of $250 million.

As was to be expected, Kessner does not take any blame. Three weeks ago, he told the Daily News that most of the problems in his buildings are caused by the tenants themselves, who he said, trash appliances, break windows, illegally rent out space in their apartments - overcrowding them - and often fail to pay rent.

The people of El Barrio disagree.

"Tenants were living a nightmare," said Haro. "They ended that nightmare when they decided to get organized and fight back."

And fight they did. Through protests, street marches and court actions, tenants forced Kessner to make hundreds and hundreds of repairs in 10 of the buildings. As a result of the movement's actions, Haro believes, the landlord finally decided to sell.
"Instead of the powerful landlord evicting the immigrants," Haro said with pride, "the immigrants evicted the powerful landlord."

But whoever buys the properties - 1,141 apartments, most of which are rent-stabilized, and 57 ground-floor retail spaces, from 99th St. to 125th St. - will have to deal with more than 3,000 open housing violations.

While Kessner was included in the Village Voice's list of worst landlords, the Movement for Justice in El Barrio also merited a mention in the pages of the same publication - but for very different reasons.

The Voice included the community group in its "Best of New York City" edition as the "Best Power to the People Movement of New York City."

Haro and the Movement for Justice in El Barrio are well aware that they still have plenty of work to do.

"There are too many problems in El Barrio," Haro said. "We will continue fighting for decent living conditions. . . . That still is a very big problem."

Many years of abuses - unresponsive landlords, freezing apartments, broken windows, peeling walls and ceilings - have made skeptics out of the people of East Harlem when it comes to dealing with building owners.

Yet the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, through organizing the tenants and educating them about their rights, empowered the community for the first time.
"We won over rich landlords in every building," Haro said. "People now see that together, we can make a difference."

He also has a very direct message for whoever ends up buying Kessner's buildings.
"If they don't treat us with the respect and dignity, we deserve, we will fight back as hard as we did against Kessner," Haro said.

Abusive landlords, be warned.

Last edited on Sat, 2011-06-25 02:49